In Athol school committee follies reveal community division

ATHOL–Cable-access television broadcasts of town meetings, board of selectmen sessions, and other municipal gatherings usually attract few viewers, even when they are repeated endlessly at all hours of the day and night. But on occasion, the performance of municipal duties takes a riveting turn, presenting to citizen-viewers high drama, if not low comedy.

North of the Quabbin Reservoir, meetings of the Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee have become a long-running soap opera, but the viewing public is more appalled than amused. Local resident Caroline Mansfield, writing to the Athol Daily News, likened her grim fascination with the school committee telecast to “going past an accident scene where I couldn’t help myself from slowing down to look while at the same time fearing the awful carnage I might see.”

At the school committee’s September 20 meeting, the carnage consisted of a five-to-four vote not to extend interim superintendent Alton Sprague’s indemnification insurance. Such insurance–which shields public officials from personal liability when they are sued in their official capacities–is a protection often provided to municipal officials. After the committee took a break, Sprague handed in his letter of resignation.

“Week by week the dysfunction and bickering on non-student and relatively insignificant issues has drained my time, energy and patience (both personal and professional),” wrote Sprague in his letter. “My commitment is to improving services to students, anything less from a superintendent is a waste of your resources–both mine and the community.”

Thus a long-simmering dispute over schools, governance, and public accountability came to a boil. The tension has only added to existing discord in Athol, a down-at-heels mill town of 11,000 people, and it shows no signs of abating.

The next day, Selectman Mary Forristall got enough telephone calls from irate citizens to place an article on the November 15 special town meeting warrant establishing a procedure to recall school committee members. The school board thwarted the move, however, narrowly voting not to place the article on the warrant, which was its prerogative, according to one interpretation of town bylaws. The measure will go to the annual town meeting this spring with or without the committee’s endorsement, since the voter signatures required to put the article on the warrant have already been gathered.

“I think the public ought to be able to recall any elected official, period,” says Selectman Jim White, who points out that a similar provision exists to remove selectmen. “It keeps people honest–not that anyone walks into a volunteer job and intentionally tries to break the law.”

But observers say the move to unseat members of the school committee is just a symptom of a community divided along social and economic lines. These divisions show themselves in every aspect of town government, which is widely described as contentious.

“Here’s one truth, and you learn this in government class in the 12th grade,” says White. “The United States has an adversarial form of government, and people say, why don’t we get along? They’re not supposed to. In Athol, sometimes we bring ‘adversarial’ right to the core of the meaning.”

Sprague, it would seem, is just the latest victim. “I’ve got a pension from California, and I don’t need to be on the Jerry Springer Show,” says Sprague, 62, who lives in Amherst with his wife Helen Vivian, who recently retired as superintendent of schools in Orange. Superintendent in Westfield from 1992 to 1995 and later interim superintendent in the North Berkshire Union School District in Clarksburg, Sprague came out of retirement to take over in Athol after Penelope J. Kleinhans resigned after five years in the position. Things turned ugly toward the end of her tenure, which ended with Kleinhans being sued by the teachers’ union. Selectman Forristall says Kleinhans was “run out of town.”

In his one year in office, Sprague opened the new middle school, hired three new principals, settled three union contracts, and completed an extensive community survey on educational priorities, which proved to be revealing. Conducted by Coleman-Ross Consultants of Worcester and completed last June, the survey found a divide between “lifelong residents” and “newcomers.” Athol natives, who tend to be blue-collar, generally favor a back-to-basics approach, strong discipline, and a potent role for the schools in preparing students for work. A newer, more white-collar element is interested in academic innovation, the condition of school buildings and materials, and educational enhancements such as arts and computer courses.

A survey on educational priorities found a divide between “lifelong residents” and “newcomers.”
This division spills over into civic life, according to the consultants, who found a “vocal minority” of Athol old-timers that “votes at high rates, does much of the civic work in the community and tends to get elected to office.” Meanwhile, people with more limited time and involvement depend on the daily newspaper, the Athol Daily News, which, the consultants charge, “does not always accurately report on school issues and to some degree supports the vocal minority views.”

Divided, as well, is the school committee itself. School Committee Chairman Carla Rabinowitz, a lawyer and consultant who lives in Royalston, says a “climate of suspicion and paranoia” pervades politics in the two towns that make up the school district–and to some extent between them, with Royalston a slice of New England gentility compared to working-class Athol. “The people who can tap into that suspicion and paranoia can ride it to power,” she says.

The regional school committee is not the only place where local politics get wild and woolly. The November 15 meeting was the first open town meeting for Athol, which was governed by representative town meeting prior to a recent charter revision. The gathering attracted 187 registered voters, and one participant was escorted out of the building by police when she refused the moderator¹s request to put away the sign she held opposing a proposed noise-abatement bylaw.

Athol is a one-company town whose fate is tied to the fortunes of the L.S. Starrett Co., a manufacturer of precision measuring tools, and those fortunes are declining, says Rabinowitz. “This is the old, manufacturing economy, and it’s not doing well,” she notes. “Because the town is isolated and it’s very tightly knit, [residents] don’t look outside Athol and they don’t understand the global forces that are doing this to the town. There are people in Athol who badly want someone to blame for this dislocation, this falling behind. If they can blame outsiders, all the better, especially those who are highly paid.”

Athol school committee member Matthew Alden, who voted against Sprague’s insurance coverage, wouldn’t call it paranoia, but he does say he doesn’t trust Rabinowitz one little bit. Alden, a mechanic, says Sprague, Rabinowitz, and their supporters were on a “power trip,” moving forward policies and decisions (such as selecting a school nurse) without involving the rest of the board. Committee members who ask questions are laughed at, Alden says. “We all need to be in the loop here.”

“I have done my best…to try and build consensus, maintain neutrality, and build trust,” says Rabinowitz. But the tension has taken its toll on her, as well. After 12 years on the board, she says she won’t run for re-election this year.

After Sprague resigned, two nominees for interim superintendent promptly turned down the position. Finally, Willard Chiasson took the job. There’s hope he will be a soothing influence while the committee searches for its eighth superintendent (permanent or interim) in as many years. A former superintendent in another district, Chiasson has worked in Athol over the past 10 years as a part-time funeral home greeter, school bus driver, and clerk in a liquor store; he sings every year in the town variety show. After the school committee’s secretary left a meeting in tears, Chiasson took on the job of official minutes-taker, as well.

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That means Chiasson may have his work cut out for him, in more ways than one. Says Sprague: “The school committee has spent more time trying to arrange commas in the minutes than taking care of kids.”

Mary Carey is a reporter for The Daily Hampshire Gazette.